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Khast Imom square

North from Chorsu bazaar is the holy heart of Tashkent - Khast Imom square (sometimes also written as Hazrat Iman Square), a glimpse of what much of the city must have been like before it was levelled by the 1966 earthquake or replaced with Soviet concrete. This is the least Russified or Sovietized part of the city, a maze of baked-mud walls bereft of fenestral intrusion into Muslim privacy. In many cases traditionally built houses survived the 1966 earthquake-only walls with windows or doors collapsed. Ladas rust under mud and timber entrance halls once reserved for horse and cart. Open doorways afford a glimpse of vine-shaded courtyards and quiet prosperity. Councils of aksakal (white beards) in each of the dozen old town neighbourhoods, or malhalla, fostered community relations long before revolution of 1917. Between 100,000 and 150,000 Uzbeks still call the old town home.

At its heart is Hazrat Iman Square and, facing onto it, the Hazrat Iman Mosque, which was constructed in just four months in 2007 on the instruction of President Karimov. This is the official religious centre of the republic, and was the focus of a massive reconstruction project completed in 2010. The newly remodeled Khast Imom Square, fronted by the 50 metre tall minarets of the huge new Hazrati Imom Jome Masjidi, Tashkent's largest place of worship.

The largest mosque in the city, it was an expensive undertaking: the sandalwood columns came from India, the dark green marble is Turkish and the interior of the blue-tiled domes is decorated with genuine gold leaf and point to the international underpinning given to this visible new bastion of Islam. Next-door is the administrative centre of the Mufti of Uzbekistan, the head of official Islam in the Republic. The Muslim Board of Uzbekistan, whose grand mufti is roughly the Islamic equivalent of an archbishop, sits here.

Just behind the Friday Mosque is the Tellya Sheikh Mosque and the small but important Muyie Mubarak Library (09.00-12.00 & 14.00-17.00 Mon-Fri, 10.00-15.00 Sat; US$1.50). Muyi Muborak means 'the sacred hair', a reference to a holy relic held here: a hair said to have belonged to the Prophet Muhammad. Moyie Mubarek Library Museum is perhaps the primary attraction here, since it houses the 7th-century Osman Quran (Uthman Quran), said to be the world’s oldest and stained with the blood of the third Caliph Osman who was murdered while reading it in 655. It is one of seven originals spread across the Islamic world from Qufa to Basra and Mecca to Tashkent, the latter through an accident of history. In the late 14th century, Tamerlane brought it to Bibi Khanum's mighty lectern in Samarkand. General Kaufmann, tsarist conqueror of Turkestan, dispatched it to St Petersburg in 1868 before being returned to Tashkent by Lenin in 1924 as an act of goodwill towards Turkestan’s Muslims. It is Tashkent’s most impressive and important sight. The huge koran is written in the Kuraish language (an early form of Arabic), in Kufic script on elk skin. This Qu'ran, sadly now incomplete, was produced just 19 years after the death of Muhammad. It is displayed in a glass-fronted vault; although the text appears to be written on parchment, it is in fact on deerskin.

The museum also contains 30 or 40 rare 13th-century books among its collection. Other manuscripts in the small library include an eighth century deer skin manuscript from Katta Langar and a Koran optimistically written in Hebrew.

On the west side of the square (to the side of the Tillya Sheikh), close to the museum, is the Barak Khan Madrassah (home to the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan until 2007), founded in the 16th century by a descendent of Tamerlane who ruled Tashkent for the Shaybanid dynasty. The ornate facade of blue-tiled mosaic and Koranic inscription conceals a rose garden courtyard and 35 hujra. Nowadays a souvenir shops occupy the student rooms of this 16th-century Medressa. Immediately opposite it, the Tellya Sheikh Mosque, formerly Tashkent's main place of worship. Built by Mirza Akhmed Kushbegi in 1856, the mosque is a peaceful place with some attractive carved pillars and painted ceilings, though notably less ornate than the Hazrat Iman Mosque that has effectively replaced it.

Just to the north is the the little 16th-century mausoleum of Abu Bakr Mohammed Kaffal Shashi, the grave of a local doctor, philosopher and poet of Islam who lived from 904 to 979 in the Shaybanid period. The front room contains his large tomb and five smaller ones. Larger tombs of three more sheikhs are at the back. The portal, inner dome and arcade date from the 16th century, when his holy reputation attracted a cemetery. Barren women smear their faces with dust from his tomb in the hope he will end their curse.

On the western edge of the complex, no less visit-worthy, is the 19th-century Al-Bukhari Institute (once the Namozgoh Mosque), one of the few Islamic centres allowed to operate during the Soviet period. It was the highest Muslim seminary in the Soviet Union (senior to the only other authorized college, the Mir-i-Arab Madrassah in Bukhara). For much of the 20th century it was restricted in the scope of its work and limited to just 25 Imams; now there are more than 130 people studying here. 

Khast Imom square